Fire

Notes from the rewatch: First starts for Drew Conner and Matt Lampson

Notes from the rewatch: First starts for Drew Conner and Matt Lampson

After being fairly consistent with his lineups so far this season, Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic shook things up at two positions ahead of Saturday's match at the LA Galaxy.

Goalkeeper Jorge Bava had played every minute and right back Michael Harrington had started every match, only sitting for 12 minutes, in the first eight matches of the season. Paunovic sent both to the bench against the Galaxy and brought in two first-time starters in Matt Lampson and Drew Conner.

Lampson started 11 matches in 2016 while battling with Sean Johnson for the starting goalkeeper spot, but hadn't played since August. Conner came up as a midfielder through the Fire's academy and after only playing in the USL in his rookie season in 2016 had made four substitute appearances in the midfield in 2017. Conner's first career MLS start came at a new position, right back.

Here's a look at how those two fared plus the Fire's defending on corner kicks, which cost them the win.

Matt Lampson back in goal

To be perfectly honest Lampson wasn't asked to do much. The Galaxy put two shots on target, both off corner kicks and neither of which Lampson had much of a chance to save. The most he was tested was on a Emmanuel Boateng cross in the 67th minute. It wasn't on goal, but Lampson did cleanly catch the ball instead of allowing a loose ball rebound situation. Lampson came off his line on a couple occasions to prevent breakaways and was able to catch one of Giovani Dos Santos' corners. He dribbled out of pressure on one occasion and didn't have any errant passes.

It was a mistake-free showing similar to Bava's shutout against Real Salt Lake in the home opener when he didn't make any saves. Lampson let in two goals that weren't his fault and didn't make any distribution errors.

Drew Conner's first MLS start

If making a first MLS start wasn't enough to test Conner's nerve, he had to do so in a new position and against Ashley Cole and Romain Alessandrini. Cole, a 36-year-old who played for Arsenal and Chelsea and has over 100 caps for England, isn't as fast as he used to be, but is still one of the better left backs in MLS. Alessandrini is the Galaxy's newest designated player and has been the team's top attacking threat this season.

Conner had been training as a right back with the Fire, but this was his first game time at the position outside of a 12-minute stint against New England on April 15 when the Fire were up three goals and a man. Conner was subbed out after 75 minutes and managed to not get burned on a goal, but he did get burned a few times.

Alessandrini got behind Conner on two occasions in the first half hour. The first time he got a cross away and the second time Johan Kappelhof slid over to cover for Conner and give LA a corner.

Conner was higher up the field than right winger Luis Solignac on quite a few occasions early. It's hard to tell if this was tactical or Conner being too high up the field for a defender. Solignac did seem to drop back to cover Conner in these situations.

Conner's defensive highlight is probably this marking job he did on Alessandrini as the Galaxy winger went to head a cross (try not to be mesmorized by the left side of the Fire's defense being sliced and diced by Bradley Diallo).

When Emmanuel Boateng subbed into the match late in the first half for an injured Jermaine Jones, Alessandrini moved to the right. Boateng was fresher at that point and is faster than Alessandrini. He got by Conner a few times to get away clean crosses, but nothing came of them. Boateng is LA's version of David Accam. He burns a lot of people on a regular basis.

Offensively, Conner completed 21 of his 30 passes and didn't attempt any crosses. He had a couple nice touches and passes in traffic, but didn't contribute much to the attack.

Corner kick defending

The Galaxy had eight corner kicks and scored two goals from them. Lampson caught one and one was floated to the edge of the box where Boateng collected it and there was no header. Out of the six corner kicks where there were headers, LA won four of them and three led to shots on goal. This cost the Fire the win.

Daniel Steres, who scored LA's first goal, also had a free header on an Alessandrini free kick in the 72nd minute that could have given LA the lead, but went over the bar.

The Fire's lack of movement on LA's first goal is staggering.

Paunovic will likely prioritize improvement from his team on defending corner kicks this week.

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

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USA TODAY

As Fire near playoffs, Bastian Schweinsteiger's immediate and long-term futures are in question

Bastian Schweinsteiger has delivered on the promise of a big name star since joining the Fire in late March. He has produced on the field, drawn lots of attention to the club, the team has won enough to get into its first postseason since 2012 and, until recently, he stayed healthy.

However, the 33-year-old German has played 19 minutes in the previous six matches and told reporters on Wednesday that he will not play in the regular season finale in Houston on Sunday. He missed four straight matches with a calf injury before returning against New York City FC on Sept. 30 for a substitute appearance.

Schweinsteiger left practice early with what appeared to be a reaggravation of the injury on Oct. 4 and now it is known that will cost him at least two games. With the playoff picture still in flux (the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference), the Fire could potentially face a three-day turnaround and travel after the Houston game or could have a first-round bye. Keeping Schweinsteiger fresher for that crunch of games could end up being a good thing, but it also runs the risk of his match fitness not being at 100 percent for the postseason.

Beyond the postseason, Schweinsteiger dropped this tease of a nugget to the Daily Herald's Orrin Schwarz just an hour before Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke with reporters for almost an hour at Toyota Park.

Schweinsteiger, who was not at training, was autographing memorabilia in the form of soccer balls, posters and jerseys. Chicago Red Stars fans may get a kick out of the fact that Schweinsteiger was wearing a Red Stars hoodie.

Initially, the club said Schweinsteiger signed a one-year contract with a mutual option. Later in the day, when asked about Schweinsteiger's future, Rodriguez said the mutual option doesn't have a set number attached to it.

"That would require a negotiation," Rodriguez said. "It was mutual in a sense of we didn’t want either party to feel bound without having had the year of experience to draw on. From our perspective, our experience has been extraordinarily positive with Bastian. We think he’s delivered across all of our expectations and we hope that we have delivered against his expectations.”

So in essence, there is no mutual option. Schweinsteiger and the Fire have to come to terms again on a deal for the German to return in 2018. That's not to say Schweinsteiger can't come back, but there's nothing in writing that binds the two together for next season.

Rodriguez said talks have only begun in the very preliminary stages at this point.

“The most that Basti and I have done is, both said, hey this has gone pretty well." Rodriguez said. "You like it. I like it... So I think we want to remain with our original plan. It was to look to have the hard discussions at the end of the season. My view is in-season negotiations always prove to be a distraction, whether to the player or to me. There can be a team element if it becomes public.

"I don’t want to speak for Basti, but from what we’ve gleaned and what he shared with us, he and (wife) Ana (Ivanovic) are very comfortable in the city. They love it. I think he’s really enjoyed the locker room, the guys, the support of the fans. I think he’s really taken to the challenge of Major League Soccer. I think the signs are positive, but again we would prefer to have the season close before finalizing anything.”